How to Make the Greatest Impact with Your Disaster Relief Donation

Know the charity, avoid in-kind donations, and consider long-term rebuilding instead of relief

How to Make the Greatest Impact with Your Disaster Relief Donation
Image: NOAA
August 17, 2016

Disasters that cause massive destruction prompt people to donate to charities. Although these efforts are usually well meaning, they often end up doing more harm than good to relief efforts on the ground. It's important that you know how to make the greatest impact through your donations and other efforts to provide relief after disasters.

"Time is of the essence": Do Your Research

The first step is to decide on the type of relief you want to support. As GuideStar, a nonprofit research organization, explains: "Disaster relief has many faces—emergency housing, provision of potable water, medical assistance, feeding the hungry, sending in search and rescue teams." Evaluate your values and priorities and use the results to decide what kind of relief you want to support.

If you have made charitable contributions before, it is often a good idea to contribute to the same organization again. However, if you have not made a previous donation, or if you want to donate to a different charity, make sure to thoroughly research the organizations you are considering. Gather as much information as possible: does the organization provide the type of relief you decided on? How much experience does the charity have doing relief work, and in particular, relief work in the area that has experienced the disaster? How much of your donation will actually go to relief efforts and how much will go to administrative or fundraising expenses?

"Time is of the essence," says GuideStar. "Lives are at risk, so you want to give to organizations that have the ability to get relief where it needs to go quickly and efficiently."

There are several reputable sources that potential donors can use to find a plethora of information on charitable organizations—these include GuideStar, Charity Navigator, GiveWell, CharityWatch, and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance.

Why Not Donate in Kind or Volunteer?

Many people consider monetary donations too impersonal. They would rather give in-kind donations (non-cash donations such as goods, services, or expertise) or even travel to the affected area themselves to do relief work. However, most often these are not the best ways to help disaster victims. Many organizations working on the ground do not have the infrastructure to get volunteers and donated supplies where they are needed in a timely fashion. Monetary donations enable the organization to purchase the supplies locally when they are needed, and it is better for the local economy if local workers provide the relief efforts instead of volunteers who come in and unwittingly displace them.

This being said, donors also need to be cautious when making monetary donations. Many fraudulent charities spring up in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and it is important not to fall for their scams. Donors should not contribute to charities that send spam messages and emails claiming to link to a relief organization. Instead, if they are considering donating online, they should go directly to the charity's website by typing its URL into the address bar in their browser.

Earmarking for the Greatest Impact

Another aspect that should be considered regarding monetary donations to charities is earmarking. Although it is often the desire to provide relief for disaster victims that prompts a donor to give in the first place, immediate relief efforts may not be the best use of your donation.

"Immediate relief efforts are just one part of a long recovery process," says the Harvard Business Review. "By the time money earmarked for disaster relief arrives in charities' bank accounts for a particular disaster, recovery workers have already moved on to the much harder, much more expensive rebuilding phase."

Donors who still desire to earmark their donation for a specific purpose have several options. If they really want their contribution to go toward disaster relief, they can earmark it for that purpose, but they should know that for logistical reasons it may not be used until another disaster strikes. Alternatively, they can earmark the money to be used for rebuilding, which will ensure that it will almost certainly be used in the context of the current disaster. Finally, if there are particular types of rebuilding that donors wish to contribute to, they can wait a certain amount of time until it becomes clear that the desired type is underfunded and then make their donation.

To Give or Not to Give?

The desire to provide support and relief for victims of disasters is laudable and should be encouraged. By following these tips, donors can help others in need while ensuring that their contributions have the greatest possible impact.